You may have heard of Midnight Cowboy… then again, perhaps not. Nestled in a small space on 6th street and with no discerning physical qualities to attract passersby, it’s easy to miss–unless you already know what you’re looking for. The space itself is infamous, existing until recently as an “oriental massage parlor.” Okay, a brothel. Now a cocktail lounge since Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League appropriated it, it hilariously still semi-frequently receives visitors who expect its prior incarnation. While the place isn’t a strict secret (it retains a website and Facebook page, several awards, numerous write ups, and the ever reliable word-of-mouth), one does enjoy a sense of exclusivity when ringing the buzzer for entrance (only one of 8 which works). The decor is refined late 19th century: beautifully decadent without being gaudy, retaining the aspects of the seedy brothel it once was and adding facets of what I imagine an opium den would have resembled in more aristocratic times. Midnight Cowboy embraces its wanton roots. Large parties get a further sense of what the lounge once was; are ushered into private, curtained back rooms. To call for service, customers must turn on a red light just outside the room.
I recently sat down with Alamo Beverage Director Bill Norris and the General Manager of Midnight Cowboy, Brian Dressel. They gave me a walking tour and we discussed at length a plethora of topics ranging from celebrity patrons, the future of 6th street, and the history of speakeasies… not to mention their New Year’s Eve event. One can certainly observe from the discussion the candid love and dedication which goes into maintaining a lounge like Midnight Cowboy. Here is a portion of our talk:
Do512: So what happens when you push any of the buzzers that don’t say ‘Harry Craddock?”
Bill: They’re dummy buttons.
Brian: Trap door opens in the sidewalk and takes you to the sewer system!
Do512: Do they even ring?
Do512: People just don’t get in if they don’t know?
Brian: Yeah it’s a decoy for other people who are on 6th street.
Bill: –the kind of people who walk down the street drunk on a saturday night and push buttons.
Brian: That way they have a 1 out of 8 chance of getting in.
Do512: So this used to be an oriental massage, right? Now it’s a speakeasy. When I think speakeasy I think something a little dingy, more illicit…. but this is a really nice cocktail lounge!
Brian: Yeah I guess speakeasies at a certain time in history were nicer cocktail lounges, now I guess they’re more of after hour clubs.
Bill: If they’re truly illegal.
Bryan: Now true speakeasies are usually kind of a dump that, you know, serves beer until 6 in the morning. But this is more of a victorian era.
Bill: Yeah it’s late 18 early 1900 design.
Do512: I don’t know much about speakeasy history… usually I attribute it to prohibition era slummy back-of-a-gambling-parlor-making-their-own-liquor type of thing… I don’t imagine something as nice as this.
Bill: Well they ran the gamut. From the moment prohibition took effect if you wanted to a run a bar, at any level, it had to be a speakeasy. The 21 Club in New York is one of the most famous speakeasies of all time, and it’s still open. And, y’know, you have to wear a jacket if you’re a guy.
Do512: Did much research go into speakeasies before opening Midnight Cowboy?
Bryan: A lot of design aspects, we researched. Both of us have done plenty of research into that era of cocktails as well. Here the cocktails are definitely seeded in the classics, but we also do modern day takes on them as well. Our menu is split, we have one age of classics, one page of house cocktails and then for now, on the back, we have some friend’s cocktails, which are kind of bartenders from around the country.
Do512: Why 2 hours – why the time limits on reservations? Obviously it’s a small place.
Bill: There’s only 48 total seats so if you have a few drinks in two hours with no food you’re gonna be pretty close to being unsafe to drive, at the very least.
Do512: I hear they’re strong.
Bill: They’re potent….. You know, we’re a business, we have to get people in and out, on some level. But it’s mostly guest safety, and really very few people on 6th want to stay in one place anyway.
Bryan: Once you’ve had two hours, at any bar for that matter–most people usually want to move on. I would also say that 2 hour thing, we’re pretty strict about that on weekends, when we’re usually fully booked. The rest of the week if you want to stay longer, we more than likely can accommodate you.
Bill: –Provided there’s no reservation waiting for the seat.
Bryan: We take walk-ins every day that we’re open. Reservations are highly recommended, just because no one wants to come down here and not have a table.
Do512: Like a hair salon!
Bill: Exactly. If people happen to be here on Friday or Saturday and we’re fully booked there’s always the chance that someone won’t show up, so it never hurts to ring the buzzer and see if there’s something available if you’re interested in coming in. We’re happy to take someone’s number so if someone else doesn’t show up we can call you and tell you to come on by.
Do512: I really appreciate the lack of television in here.
Bill: It’s supposed to be about spending a couple of hours with friends or loved ones. And actually interacting and talking to them.
Do512: It’s very intimate.
Brian: Conversation with friends or your date or business associates, the conversation is really the start of the show here. There’s no loud music, no “entertainment” like sports or TV or dancing… it’s all about talking with someone and actually paying attention to what they’re saying.
Do512: Do you know how rare that is? Even outside of the bar scene, just sitting and talking with friends, it doesn’t happen anymore without someone being on their phone or engaged in some kind of screen.
Brian: Yeah exactly.
Do512: I hear Elijah Wood was in the other day?
Bill: Oh did he end up coming in that night?
Brian: Yeah, he was here on Thursday.
Do512: What other faces have you seen here?
Bill: It’s sort of like Fight Club. If someone’s coming here, famous or infamous… they’re coming here for the same reason everyone else comes here, I think, and that’s because hopefully the cocktails are good, hopefully the service is outstanding, and they get to talk to the people they came with, and not be diluted by outside stimuli, whether that’s someone wanting their attention… everybody gets treated the same way in here. Whether you’re a hobbit or a regular person.
Brian: Yeah it’s not like, somewhere you come to hide, but you know, it’s not a place to come to “be seen.”
Do512: I can see that. This is very atypical of the average 6th street scene.
Bill: Yeah 6th street’s changing, very slowly.
Do512: Where do you think it’s going?
Bill: I think it’ll land somewhere as a hybrid street. A lot of businesses here are geared to the early 20′s party crowd or the tourist crowd. But you see stuff like Parkside and Backspace and hopefully here, which is geared toward someone who’s looking for something a little more… grown up?
Brian: Easy Tiger is another new one.
Bill: There’s no reason that if you came of age here and started drinking on 6th street, you’ve got that memory in place, but this street should be for all of Austin, not just that crowd.
Brian: As it stands now, aside from the few places we mentioned, even those places, right now the business done on the street is done from 10 at night till 2 in the morning. You go outside right now [Monday 4 p.m.] there’s not a lot of people, no retail, no real significant lunch business down here.
Bill: And the places that do serve lunch are PACKED because theres so many people who work down here. I know the 6th street improvement district is worrying very hard to get more of a diverse entertainment lifestyle, retail, on the street so that it’s not just Bourbon Street light, but that it’s got a vitality 24 hours a day.
Brian: Like right now the only corridor we have like that in town is South Congress. You have shopping, bars, restaurants, and it has a very vibrant pedestrian life, but at the same time, South Congress to me is pretty ugly, in comparison to this street…
Bill: It feels like you’re in a city when you’re on this street.
Brian: Architecture is great, there’s not a 5 lane corridor of traffic….
Do512: South Congress is very… marketed. Trendy? Whereas 6th exists as 6th, it’s historic…
Bill: I’ve been pleasantly surprised since we opened in March to see how open people who live here are to coming down and trying something… even for me, someone who’s older, I would have thought twice before I came here. I’d go to Parkspace or Easy Tiger…we see a lot of people who have dinner before, and then come here, and they’re spending an evening out here.
Brian: And the Ritz across the street, and Paramount’s not too far. We even get people from ACL Live.
Bill: There’s a lot of people who come here for business or whatever, who are staying in this part of town… and traditionally have to leave this part of town to go over to the 2nd street district or the warehouse district. Someone who can afford a room at the Driskill doesn’t necessarily wanna go to Bikinis. [laugh] No offense to Bikinis, they’re filling a niche.
Do512: Very different vibe. Generally I avoid 6th street unless I’m here for a show. This is the kind of place I would want to come to after a show to unwind, discuss it… this place makes perfect sense.
Bill: But you know we see business people here who meet with clients and also a lot of people who we know from the restaurant industry.
Do512: So tell us about your New Year’s event.
Bill: We were looking for a way to make it something special and we were afraid that given the revelry that happens here on New year’s that people would be less likely to try and book, or they wouldn’t be able to get here because of traffic and closed off streets. So instead of doing the traditional RSVP system we’re taking 50 RSVPS starting at 7 and your reservation is a wristband that allows you to come and go until closing time. If you have a wristband you can go experience some of that madness but then you need a quiet place to come and talk, you can come in here. It all comes with the come and go privilege, three drink tickets for the course of the evening, and champagne toast at midnight, and some complementary snacks… we haven’t nailed it down yet, but are fairly certain it will be from Antoneli’s… just a way to come in and out and not having to worry about finding a seat. It’s a pretty good deal!
Do512: What’s the cost?
Bill: $75. Essentially four drinks for $75 and you get to come and go on 6th street.
Do512: It’s a very romantic place for couples to spend New Year’s, too.
If you’re interested in celebrating the New Year at Midnight Cowboy, you can RSVP on the website. This classy train is only available to the first 50 RSVPs, though, so jump on it before it’s gone.